We all have mental habits that are not so great—the things that keep us stuck, make us stressed out, impact our health and affect our relationships. Thankfully, we don’t have to stay “stuck” in these negative thinking patterns. In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak with clinical neuropsychologist, writer and mental health advocate Nawal Mustafa about common cognitive and thinking errors we all deal with and what we can do to overcome them, how to recognize and avoid psychological invalidation and gaslighting, the difference between healthy venting and emotional dumping, the best way to have difficult emotional discussions, and how to help your children speak about their feelings and experiences.
First up, it is important to recognize that we can never become an expert on someone else’s experience. When we assume that we know what someone is thinking or feeling, or assume that we know what they should be thinking or feeling, we can invalidate their feelings. Yes, there will be times when we may feel we may have gone through something worse. However, when someone opens up about their experiences, we need to give them space to talk and avoid minimizing or invalidating their pain by saying something like “you shouldn’t feel that way”, “I was just joking”, “it could be worse” or “I am sure it wasn’t that bad”. When we bring our own subjective biases into the conversation like this, we stifle the other person with our own expectations of how they should feel or act—especially when we feel guilty or on the defense.
This kind of psychological invalidation is a common form of gaslighting. At its heart, gaslighting is a power move—intentional or otherwise. It makes the other person think they are crazy or sensitive and can lead them to doubt themselves. It invalidates their internal experiences, taking the blame away from the person doing the gaslighting.
If you have experienced gaslighting, or are currently experiencing gaslighting, the best way to protect yourself is to:
- Know your self-worth. As Nawal points out, the best shield against gaslighting is our own self-worth, which will give you the strength to challenge abusive ways of communication. Low self-worth, on the other hand, lays the foundation for self-doubt, which will put you at more at risk for gaslighting.
- Say something. Gaslighting is not always conscious, so it is very important to point it out when it happens, even if it is uncomfortable. Communication is key.
- Protect yourself. Set boundaries like ending the conversation. If gaslighting is a common aspect to your relationship and causing you a lot of distress, think about if you still want that person to be a part of your life.
Gaslighting can also happen between parents and children, especially if we try to shield our children from the negative or we are overprotective. As parents and guardians, we need to teach our children how to communicate how they feel—the good, the bad and the ugly. We need to create safe spaces where our children can express themselves—even when it may be uncomfortable or distressing for us. One of the best ways to do this is using open questions if your child is sad or upset. Ask them things like “how are you feeling?”, “what do you think?” or “do you want my advice?”. Allow for open and honest communication, which will help them build up their resilience. Don’t just respond with a positive statement or try to shield them from the negative, as this can undermine or minimize how they feel.
Indeed, approaching any discussion willing to ask questions and hear what the other person will say is essential when talking about our emotional experiences. As Nawal notes, we should always try to avoid emotional dumping, or getting defensive, not owning up to our own mistakes, being inconsiderate of the other person’s time, repeating things over and over, playing the victim, blaming the other person, not being open to solutions, trying to prove someone wrong, and bringing up past issues that have already been resolved. We need to learn how to express what we feel and vent our emotions in a healthy way by:
- Using “I” statements. Avoid statements like “you made me…” or “you did this…”. Rather, say something like “I felt hurt because you…did you mean it this way?”. Yes, emotions come up, but the way we choose to react is on us. We can choose to pause and self-reflect. We should not say the first thing that comes to mind, play the victim or start a blame game. Showing vulnerability and accountability opens up space in a conversation, which allows the other person to also take responsibility and be honest.
- Avoiding bringing up all your issues at once. Stick to one topic and make a note to deal with other issues at another time. And always avoid bring up past issues that have been resolved!
- Being open to finding a solution. Think about what you want out of the conversation. Don’t brush the issue under the carpet, give up because it is too hard or play the victim. Think of constructive ways you can move forward and work on your issues together.
- Writing down how you feel. Writing can be useful, as it can help you organize your thoughts and emotions. It is also a good way to calm you down, and can help you think about how you feel, see where you need to focus and recognize what work you need to do on your issues.
- Watching how you say something. The delivery is where the magic is: watch not only what you say but how you say something!
- Listening to and acknowledging the other person’s perspective. Your understanding of the situation may not be the same as the other person’s, so let them talk about how they feel too, and listen to understand.
- Setting conversation boundaries. Don’t just repeat issues or go around in circles. Say what you need to say and move on to finding a resolution/solution.
We need to take a similar approach to our own cognitive distortions or thinking errors. Cognitive distortions are irrational/inflated thoughts that negatively distort our perception of reality. They can turn into patterns of belief, which affect how we think, speak and act. They are very difficult to identify if they are not aware of them, which is why we need to get into a habit of challenging our thoughts and thinking about our thinking. Some cognitive common distortions are:
1. Personalization or blame. This is when we personalize an experience or situation and internalize it, identifying ourselves or someone else with this experience. For example, you fail to meet an unrealistic expectation you have set for yourself and personalize this failure, and you start thinking that it somehow reflects badly on who you are as a person.
It is important that we learn not to personalize single experiences and keep the separation between “I did that” and “that’s who I am”. If we don’t do this, we can set a negative feedback loop up that can affect our mental and physical health by making us feel that there is something intrinsically wrong with us.
2. Should/could statements. These are often based on unrealistic expectations we or others have.
Don’t just accept all expectations as a given. Ask yourself questions like “am I being realistic?” or “does this define who I am?”. Get into a habit of challenging your thoughts!
3. Emotional reasoning. This is when we assume that our negative emotions reflect the truth of what happened. However, just because we feel a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that what we feel is true!
Always ask yourself “why do I feel this way?”. Examine the emotion and self-reflect—don’t just be reactive.
4. Catastrophizing: This is when we imagine that the worst likely outcome will occur, which often leads to over-generalization, the feeling that “this always happens to me…”.
If you do this a lot, get into the habit of thinking and asking questions before you react or assume the worst. Don’t freak out of you don’t know what is happening. Challenge that thought! If your mind starts wandering in that direction, ask yourself “what is the best-case scenario here?”.
5. Fortune-telling. This is when we predict things will not get better or will get worse, and usually happens when we are anxious, burned out or worried.
Yes, it is important to be rational, but don’t be nihilistic. Don’t let yourself descend into a negative rabbit hole and start assuming that things will never change, because change is the one thing guaranteed in life!
For more on cognitive distortions, psychological invalidation, gaslighting, emotional venting, and mental health, listen to my podcast with Nawal (episode #184), and see her newsletter and Instagram. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
1:12 How Nawal’s experiences as an immigrant shapes her approach to mental health
3:30 Psychological invalidation: signs and solutions
6:45 What is gaslighting?
15:24 Parents & gaslighting
21:00 The difference between emotional dumping and healthy venting
45:00 The common cognitive thinking errors causing us more anxiety
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